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Science choices signal a reversal

For two key posts, Obama is said to pick advocates of action against global warming.

December 19, 2008|Washington Post

WASHINGTON — President-elect Obama has selected two of the nation's most prominent scientific advocates for a vigorous response to climate change to serve in his administration, according to several sources, sending the strongest signal yet that he will reverse Bush administration policies on energy and global warming.

The appointments of Harvard University physicist John Holdren as presidential science advisor and Oregon State University marine biologist Jane Lubchenco as head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, both of which will be announced Saturday, dismayed conservatives, and heartened environmentalists and researchers.

The Bush administration has sparked controversy over the last several years as political appointees have edited government documents to delete scientific findings and block scientists' recommendations.

"The Bush administration has been the most remarkably anti-science administration that I've seen in my adult lifetime," said Nobel laureate David Baltimore, president emeritus of Caltech, in an interview. "And I do think that there will be a sea change in the Obama administration with the respect shown for the findings of science as well as the process of science."

But Bush's science advisor, John Marburger, challenged that assessment.

"There are stupid and foolish things that have been perpetrated by employees of the federal government in the executive branch, but it doesn't mean that the president is anti-science," Marburger said. "The president is getting blamed for every little thing that happens that people don't like in the administration."

Like Energy secretary nominee Steven Chu, who directs the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Holdren and Lubchenco have argued for a mandatory limit on greenhouse gas emissions to avert catastrophic climate change. In 2007, as chairman of the board of the American Assn. for the Advancement of Science, Holdren oversaw approval of the board's first statement on global warming, which said: "It is time to muster the political will for concerted action."

In October, Lubchenco told the Associated Press that she believed public attitudes on climate change were shifting. "The Bush administration has not been respectful of the science," she added. "But I think that's not true of Republicans in general. I know it's not."

Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists, predicted that the scientists would work to change how the U.S. addresses global warming.

"You can see the elements coming together," Meyer said. "It means you've got people in key places across the administration that get the urgency of the climate issue and get the need for aggressive policy to move climate solutions forward, both in the U.S. and internationally."

But Holdren's reported selection inspired no joy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free-market advocacy group that denounces global warming "alarmists" and opposes many environmental laws. Myron Ebell, director of energy and global warming policy at the institute, said, "I think he's a very bad choice. His views are extreme, they're not based in fact, and he's a ranter."

Lubchenco did not draw the same level of fire from conservative groups as Holdren on Thursday, but she represents just as radical a departure for NOAA, which oversees marine issues as well as much of the government's climate work. While NOAA has traditionally favored commercial fishing interests in policy disputes, Lubchenco has consistently called for conservation measures to safeguard ocean ecosystems in the face of industry opposition.

"For too many years, politics has played a greater role in fisheries management than science," said Josh Reichert of the Pew Environment Group. "This appointment carries with it the hope that this may soon change."

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